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Doctors and parents of Alabama trans youth seek to block ban on gender-affirming care

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Parents of transgender youth are asking a federal judge in Alabama to block a new state law that criminalizes gender-affirming treatments for minors, such as puberty blockers or hormone therapy. They say the law, set to take effect on Sunday, is unconstitutional.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has been listening to arguments in Montgomery and joins us now. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's the legal issue in this case?

ELLIOTT: Well, this is whether Alabama's ban on gender-affirming medical care discriminates against transgender youth and whether it infringes on parental autonomy. This law would make it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for parents to seek or doctors to prescribe medicines or perform surgery intended to alter a minor child's sex assigned at birth or to delay puberty. It also requires school officials to notify parents if a child discloses that they are transgender in their classes. Now, the families who filed this lawsuit say allowing this law to go into effect on Sunday will cause irreparable harm, and the U.S. Justice Department agrees and has intervened in the case.

SHAPIRO: So what was the argument that lawyers for the families made today?

ELLIOTT: Well, they started with expert witnesses, including mental health counselor Linda Hawkins. She oversees Gender and Sexuality Development Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She said it would be devastating to deny this treatment to transgender youth, especially those who are currently on either puberty blockers or hormone therapy. She said it would be like removing someone's cancer treatment. Hawkins said, without this medical care for youth who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, it can become what she described as a daily suicide watch that devastates families.

Now, some of the plaintiffs themselves, including transgender minors, are also testifying, but they're doing that privately before the judge and not in open court.

SHAPIRO: How does the state defend this law?

ELLIOTT: The state won't be presenting its witnesses until tomorrow, but we did get sort of a sense of where they're going during cross-examination today. Alabama's solicitor general, Edmund LaCour, asked one witness why is it policy to, say, ban female genital mutilation for minors or to require someone to be 18 to get a vasectomy, but not for hormone therapy that carries a risk of infertility.

Now, the Republican sponsors of the law say that youth are not old enough to make these kinds of decisions. Alabama's attorney general, Steve Marshall, has said calling gender-affirming care medically necessary is ideologically driven.

SHAPIRO: Now, transgender issues have emerged as a political wedge in many states, including Texas and Arkansas, and now Alabama is the latest. So what's been the reaction more broadly outside of the courthouse?

ELLIOTT: You know, this morning, before the hearing began, I spoke with Evan Moreno and his mom, who were here to witness this, and they want to see the law blocked. He's an 18-year-old high school senior from Birmingham who is taking testosterone. If this law goes into effect, he could not continue that therapy until he's 19, which is what the law requires.

EVAN MORENO: And it is something that has saved so many people regardless and has made my life so much easier. And if I - if that was taken away from me, I don't know what I would do. I don't know what would happen, which is a terrifying thought.

ELLIOTT: So there are families grappling with this all over the state. The federal judge here will be deciding whether to enjoin Alabama's law from taking effect on Sunday so that these families can pursue their lawsuit.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Debbie Elliott, covering that lawsuit in Montgomery. Thank you.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.